For a town that was described to me as ‘the Sao Paulo of South Africa’, I am now leaving Johannesburg slightly in love with it. Perhaps it was the incredible couchsurfing hosts I had, the comforts of home I found here, the amount of world history I absorbed in such a short period of time, or even just the more laid back site seeing approach I’ve taken on lately. Whatever it was, I can say I would most definitely come back to see more of Joburg.
First things first, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, what really made this city so incredible for me was my host. I connected with Shannon months ago on Couchsurfing and stayed in touch leading up to the trip on Facebook. I already knew I liked her, as her travel bug definitely rivals, if not surpasses, my own. As someone who is fascinated by people who are experts in areas I know nothing about, I was intrigued by all her work stories, as she is a doctor at a local hospital in Joburg. The night we went out with her friends, I completely felt like I was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or ER, listening to their banter about medical school, residence, and the day to day life of doctors. It was absolutely brilliant. Between her travel obsession, her life as a doctor, how she was learning Spanish like it was no big deal… so jealous. It’s pretty cool seeing the things you want to be in someone else. That’s the kind of motivation I need to keep learning and pushing myself to continuously grow.
My first day in Joburg I spent by straight up embracing my tourist status. I bought a ticket for the City Site Seeing bus (those red hop on/hop off buses) and did a bunch of things – Gandhi Square (for someone as prominent as Gandhi, he really deserves a better square), the Transport Museum (probably cool if you’re into old vehicles – I’m not), a walking tour of the Mining District (pretty cool actually) and went to the Top of Africa – the highest building that gives you a 360 degree aerial view of Johannesburg. I intentionally skipped the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill from the hop on/hop off, because I had a feeling they deserved a full day each. How right I turned out to be on this.
I’ll be the first to admit I must have skipped my high school history classes where we learned about South Africa and the apartheid. While I understood the big picture, actually being here was completely different; the emotions of it all really took over me more than I can count. The Apartheid Museum alone was an experience I will never forget. This one museum visit taught me more than a semester of history class ever could. I found myself constantly choking up, being over taken by both the empathy I felt for those who had to live through and endure apartheid law as well as a newfound sense of guilt for the privileges I have always had. It’s definitely a new set of emotions one needs to wrap their mind around to even begin to comprehend how apartheid really only began to end just over 20 years ago. Having followed the Apartheid Museum visit up with a day at Constitution Hill, touring the jail in which so many men who committed no crimes spent significant chunks of their life, suffice to say one would have to be heartless to feel no emotion. While the revelation that this happened not long ago is astounding, the reality slap in the face of how these kind of awful things are still happening around the world can envelope you with such an overwhelming sense of being utterly powerless.
I feel so sorry for anyone who travels all the way to South Africa and connects through to Cape Town without experiencing Joburg. With so much heavy history to take in, there is also the on-the-rise trendy areas to offset your time, to bring you back to the present of how far the country has come and to give you a glimpse of the incredible future yet to come. From the Sunday morning market and exploring Maboneng to drinking a coffee in the heart of Braamfontein (we all know how much I love my outdoor coffee in the AM) to sipping a beer on the patio at World of Beer, there are really some beautiful neighbourhoods in Joburg that should not be missed.
The best thing I did in my approach to touring Joburg was to completely disregard all the negative things I had heart about it. I of course followed all standard safety rules when in a new place, don’t walk outside at night, don’t walk anywhere alone, don’t walk with your cell phone out, be aware of your surroundings, etc. Doing this, I was able to successfully avoid the dangers of being in any big city and spend my time exploring and relaxing.
My final two days in Joburg were spent with a new host, where I had an amazing night celebrating the birthday of my hosts cousin. The degree to which people are so welcoming to tourists, in this case welcoming me into their family, with cousins, parents, aunts and uncles, never ceases to amaze. Then my last day I really went out with a bang. Stephen, my host, took me to the Lion & Rhino Nature Reserve where I was able to do so many epic things in one place! I saw Rhinos, completely the Big 5 for me, as I had only seen the other four up until this point. I not only saw a cheetah (which I had been trying to spot for weeks, as the cheetah is my nieces’ favourite animal) but I got to play with one, so much so that it even climbed up my leg! I got to feed a giraffe, able to take a giraffe selfie with the big guy cuddling up on my shoulder as I did snapped my camera. And I got to take on a male white lion – I won, but only because I had a fence to help me out.
All in all, I spent twelve days in Johannesburg and was never bored. With all the history, nature and culture I was able to take in, there is still more I have yet to see when I come back. I do not say this often, as I rarely return to a place I have already been, but South Africa will definitely be seeing more of me at some point in the future.